Series 2 of Dirty John has highlighted reactive abuse, also known as gaslighting.
The character Betty Broderick, was played by Amanda Peet with Christian Slater playing the part of her husband Dan.
The Betty Broderick story is a true crime. Elizabeth “Betty” Broderick was convicted of killing her ex-husband Daniel and his new wife Linda back in 1989. So was this simply a murder? Was Betty a jealous ex-wife who couldn’t stand the fact that her husband had moved on and remarried or was she the victim of covert or reactive abuse.
Watch the series and come to your own conclusion. We don’t want to spoil what happens in the show.
It is reported that in a interview with the Los Angeles Times, Betty’s daughter Kim said, “Mom would get mad at Dad all the time. Once, Mom picked up the stereo and threw it at him. And she locked him out constantly. He’d come around to my window and whisper, ‘Kim, let me in’.”
Oprah deemed the Betty Broderick Story one of “America’s messiest divorces,” before it ended in a double homicide.
So what is reactive abuse?
The authorities such as The Police, Social Services and Domestic Abuse charities are becoming more aware of this common tactic where abusers shift the blame of abuse onto the victim (blameshifting). Gaslighting or Reactive Abuse is a term they are familiar with and this kind of abuse can fall under the crime of Coercive Control which became an offence in 29th December 2015
The American “National Voice of Domestic Violence” – The BTSADV has a definition for reactive abuse and says “reactive abuse occurs when the victim reacts to the abuse they are experiencing. The victim may scream, toss out insults, or even lash out physically at the abuser. The abuser then retaliates by telling the victim that they are, in fact, the abuser”.
When you are the victim of persistent psychological abuse, of course this is going to grind you down. It is emotionally and physically exhausting listening to criticisms and put-downs on a daily basis. You are constantly having to try and predict your partner’s behaviour – ‘walking on eggshells’, trying everything you can to keep them happy, trying not to trigger another incident.
What happens over time is that resentment, anger, maybe even hatred towards the person that is abusing you builds up. You want them to listen to you, but they don’t. You want them to stop hurting you, but they don’t. Like a bottle of fizzy pop that is shaken time and time again with the lid still on , if you shake it enough times, it will explode. This is the danger point. This is why suddenly victims ‘snap’ and are then accused of being the abusive ones. This of course plays right into the hands of the abuser who will use this against you.
This is why it is important to get professional help before you get to the point where you explode and this is why it is important for professionals to understand about gaslighting .Caron Kipping – Domestic Abuse Recovery and Divorce Coach
Find her in The Hug Directory
Does your partner make you feel like:
- You are the crazy one, the one who over-reacts.
- You’re the psycho, the ticking time-bomb.
- You are the one responsible for all the problems and issues in the relationship .
- It’s “PMS” that causes you to explode. Do you often hear “oh, it’s THAT time of the month again.”
Perpetrators want their victims to seem unstable and crazy, so they rely on this tactic as “proof”. An abuser will use any manner of methods to provoke a reaction. Imagine someone shaking a bottle of fizzy drink… starting slowly, shaking it more and more until eventually it EXPLODES! It could be over a couple of days, weeks or even months.
(For this blog we sometimes refer to the victim as a woman and the abuser as a man – but we are well-aware that the perpetrator can be any gender)
The abuse happens little by little, it’s constant.
The abuser will chip away at the victim. It could be constant comments such as snide remarks directly to the victim, “that was nice, the gravy was a bit thin though”, alongside indirect comments, “I’m the only one who sees the fingerprints on the kitchen cupboards”. Or, it could be talking to a pet, “let me take you for the only good walk you’ll get all week,” (when the victim religiously walks the dog twice a day, everyday and the perpetrator only walks the family pet once a week).
It can also be behaviour such as smirking or sniggering during a meal the victim has prepared The victim asks “what’s wrong?” The perpetrator replies “nothing darling.” Others at the table may feel that something is wrong, but for them, it’s just a fleeting moment which quickly passes without question. For the victim, it’s yet another prod in the side to gain a reaction.
Think of the abuser as a devil, sitting with his fork on your shoulder forever prodding, waiting for a reaction. When he starts, swipe him away.
Abusers can also resort to pretending they are jealous. Maybe the victim speaks to a Dad at the school gates while the abuser is waiting in the car. When she gets back to the car she is met with, “imagine if I spoke to a woman, you’d go mental!”
From a victim:
I can only describe the abuse as like being in a fog. Day in, day out, every little thing was commented on in some way, not always verbally, but via his actions too. He’d unload the dishwasher I had just loaded, reloading it in a different way in front of me, but without saying a word. He would even say things to the cat in a voice pretending to be the cat speaking, such as “mummy’s just given me another treat and I am going to get fat and die.” He’d tell the children not to not go into the garden in the summer without their shoes on and then proceed to be barefoot himself. He’d parade around until one of us would say something, and that would be his cue to say that we were rude and argumentative.
Now, when I look back I can see how absolutely crazy HE was!
Sometimes he’d go one step further and tell us that it was “his house, his rules.” He had to be in control. He’d outwardly tell me he hated my cooking. The fact is that I messed meals up when I cooked because I was so worried about his comments. I was anxious when I cooked for him. Without saying a word he’d make over-exaggerated “sawing” actions as he cut into his food or he’d eat tiny little mouthfuls. He’d also really clunk his cutlery around, always trying to get a reaction.
If I said anything, he’d say things such as “it’s obviously that time of the month again.” He would never sit and eat something and say that it was nice, or if he did, it would be with a smirk across his face and with a tiny hint of sarcasm. I started to wonder if I was imagining what he was actually doing. Was I crazy to think that he was smirking or being super noisy with his cutlery?
I would have wicked thoughts
I would often want to punch him in the face and on one occasion I lost it so badly, I actually did. He has never forgotten. My outbursts would never be at him though, apart from that one time, but I would smash a plate or go to the bathroom and cry for hours with sheer frustration. There were times when I think if I had been mentally unstable I could have stabbed him. I knew he was controlling me and what he was doing, but I had to make preparations to get away from him comfortably and with some money behind me.
Frustration is the key word. Living with him was so frustrating. He was always just playing with my mind. There were a couple of times where I told him that I knew what he was doing to me. I even told him that his mask had slipped and he would get angry. He actually hit and kicked me around 12 times in total.
He seemed to get frustrated if I was being cleverer than him. I would play him at his own game. I wouldn’t load the dishwasher and tell him that he was so much better at it than me or I would ask him to cook and say that my culinary skills were not as remarkable as his and that’s when he would hit out, when he knew that I knew what he was doing.
Of course, when he got physical with me he always said that I made him do it. If I ever mention him hitting me he denies it or says that I am being dramatic. This is REALLY frustrating as he acts as though it didn’t happen and I definitely know he did.
The feeling of being slowly destroyed
These actions and commentary, day in, day out can eventually lead the victim to “lose it” as they start to feel worn down, destroyed and exhausted. The abuser is never happy or content, they are always “going on” about something or acting strangely. It is at this point, the abuser achieves what they set out to do. The abuser has made the victim act in a crazy way and may even use the act to go to the Police and file a statement. Even just calling the police leaves a digital print of an incident, a “trail” where the victim could look crazy. With repetitive claims by the perpetrator, on paper, the victim does indeed appear to be unstable.
The perpetrators denial
An abusive partner will often act really calmly as the victim loses it. This is because when the victim reacts to the abuse, the perpetrator has complete control of the situation, so they can sit back and relax in their position of power. You could describe is as being like a drug addict, they are getting their “fix”.
If your partner can drive you to regularly act in a crazy way, GET OUT and have no further contact with the perpetrator.
Bruises caused by the victim are a badge of honour for the abuser
If the victim happens to bruise or cause the perpetrator an injury, that’s even better for the abuser, as he can make a public display of that. They might call an ambulance for a minor injury or head to the pub with a black-eye. Domestic abuse experts will tell you over and over again that on the whole, real victims of abuse cover up their injuries. They don’t show them off as a badge saying “my partner is crazy”.
This kind of abuse isn’t also known as “crazymaking” for nothing.
Abusers using this method will claim that they are in fact the ones being abused and quite often, victims will believe that they are indeed unstable and violent as they are the ones who are having the reactive outbursts; hurling abusive comments at the perpetrator and even lashing out or throwing objects, maybe not at the abuser, but it could be something like smashing a plate. The victim gets so wound up by the constant poking of abuse, it is normal human nature to, in the end react against this.
The abuse can make the victim behave in crazy ways towards other too
A victim doesn’t always have an outburst towards the abuser. They could end up shouting at the children. The perpetrator will tell the victim to calm down and not to shout, again accusing the victim of acting irrationally. Once again, the victim feels guilt and wonders if they are actually crazy.
Shame and conditioning
After the reactive outburst, victims feel shame and remorse as they know that their behaviour was wrong. Victims are usually kind and generous loving people with lots of empathy. Feelings of shame and guilt overwhelm victims and this is where the perpetrator starts to condition the victim into believing that they are indeed crazy and so the cycle begins again. The abuser is in complete control of the victims thoughts and feelings. If there are children around, they also start to think that the victim is unstable as all they see is the outbursts. They are not aware of how the victim arrived at that tipping point.
This kind of abuse is subtle and covert.
After an “explosion” the abuser will either mock the victim or console them. What they will never say is how sorry they are that they made the victim react that way and admit to pressing their buttons. If you are on the receiving end of this mockery and being made to feel guilty, blamed for relationship issues, you should seek support for Domestic Abuse; This isn’t how normal loving relationships work.
Many survivors often ask themselves if they are abusive too, because of how they react. The truth is that mutual abuse is very rare and many experts don’t believe it exists. The power and control dynamics involved in domestic violence would make it nearly impossible for both partners to be abusive.
The key word here is “react.” That’s the difference between reactive abuse and mutual abuse. Victims and survivors react to the abuse doled out by the abuser.BTSADV
Is this what happened to Betty? Was losing her children the final straw
Abusers rarely consider that they might be the ones being abusive. If you are even considering that you are the abuser, you are probably not. If you are the victim you will be trying to change your own behaviour for the abuser; you will be trying to clean up before they arrive home, you will be loading the dishwasher in a particular way.
You’ll will be trying to change your behaviour for the perpetrator. The abuser will make no attempt to change.
So what can you do?
The abuser is looking for a reaction, so by not reacting you are restoring your integrity and power. However, you may not be able to simply walk away. You may have children, are too scared to leave or your finances could be controlled (economic abuse), so you don’t actually have the resources to remove yourself. Speak to Women’s Aid or your local Domestic Abuse charity to ensure you stay safe and to come up with a plan of action for your situation.
When you understand what is happening, you can see that the behaviour exhibited by your partner is due to their insecurity and this is why they want to have the power over YOU. It makes them feel good about themselves; they have control over something in their life. It is not up to you to change the other person and you must get help and support for reactive abuse, gaslighting and domestic abuse. Abuse isn’t always physical.